Rabbi Andrew Warmflash of the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre said he was “horrified” when he turned on the news on Oct. 27.
That morning shortly before 10 a.m., Richard Bowers walked into the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and opened fire.
According to multiple reports, Bowers, 46, had posted an anti-Jewish message at 9:49 a.m. on his Gab social media account that read: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Five minutes later, a 911 call was made to the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center about an active shooter. Police were dispatched. Shots were exchanged. Bullets from Bowers’s AR-15 assault rifle and possibly three handguns struck 17 people, killing 11 and injuring six, including four police officers. According to police, his words after being taken into custody were, “All these Jews need to die.”
Bowers, who was also shot, was charged by federal officials with 29 criminal counts, including obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs — a hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder. He also faces state charges, including 11 counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.
“I think that really our whole community is upset and angry,” said Warmflash, who serves as the spiritual leader of the HERJC.
Anti-Semitism appeared to be a motive for the shooting, as Bowers targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for his ire. It is a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees. The Anti-Defamation League has reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose by 57 percent in 2017, from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986. It was the largest increase since the ADL began tracking in 1979.
Only once since 1979 has the ADL recorded more incidents: 2,066 in 1994. Since then, the incidents had mostly declined. There were small increases in 2014 and 2015. Then, in 2016, the count began to rise significantly.
“It is difficult to acknowledge the hatred and deeply rooted anti-Semitism that led to this brutal and senseless attack,” Rabbi Sandra Bellush, the spiritual leader of Temple Am Echad in Lynbrook, said in a statement. “We are appalled at the heinous nature of this evil act, and utterly devastated that it took place in one of our houses of worship. Our prayers are with the families and loved ones of the 11 slain, and the many injured.”
She also said that she is “truly touched by the outreach and concern that our community has received from other faith communities in our area.”
The HERJC held a memorial service on Oct. 29, and helped organize a vigil in Oceanside on Oct. 30, after the Herald went to press.